Structurally, the complex spans around 100 artificially constructed islets consisting of basalt platforms built on top of the reef. Towering walls enclose 60 hectares of Atlantean-style marine ruins, including palaces, mortuaries, workers’ residences, altars and temples. The small islands are separated by sea-filled waterways, so they are navigable by boat. Western observers naturally dubbed it the “Venice of the Pacific”. In Micronesian, Nan Madol translates rather flatly as “within the interval,” which also defines the city with its intricate network of canals.
UNESCO lists Nan Madol as the earliest example of large megalithic structures in the Pacific. Its design reflects the complex religious and social practices operating within the system of supreme chiefs known as Nahmwarki. It is speculated that as many as 1,000 people may have lived within the walls during the city’s heyday, including local chiefs and priests and all their servants. Historians suggest that the Saudler rulers may have used it as a form of social control, placing potential enemy leaders across Pohnpei within their walls, placing them under their wing.
The air of mystery surrounding this civilization thrilled the few travelers who came here. Exploring Nan Madol is not easy, either by boat or taxi from the main town of Colonia, only a limited number of sites in the coastal mangroves can be visited. If drones are the best way to really appreciate their scale and layout, local guides are essential to help with navigation, especially when wading or traversing waterways in small canoes.